Scientific Deer Management? The Strange Case of the Mohonk Phantom Deer

By Ron Baker

Can you always believe what you see? In the popular movie THE RECRUIT, first released last winter, Walter Burke, senior instructor of the CIA career trainees, informs his charges: “You have all just walked through the looking glass. What you see, what you hear, NOTHING is what it seems!”

This principle is often true of life, and it is certainly true of commercial wildlife management. Likewise it is also true of a research project at Mohonk Preserve. The preserve is a privately owned natural area divided into two sections. One portion, which includes the Spring Farm section borders lands owned by the Mohonk Mountain House, includes a total of about 3,000 acres. This encompasses woodlands on adjacent Mountain House property and is located between the town of New Paltz and the village of High Falls in southeastern New York State. The second section of the preserve is the Shawangunk Mountains about a dozen miles west of New Paltz. This portion of the preserve consists of about 5,000 acres.

The Mohonk Preserve land was separated from the Mohonk Mountain House property to become a non-profit nature preserve. The Mohonk House is surrounded by an approximately 200 acre buffer zone between the house and preserve. At $350 a night, the Mohonk House is a popular, and very expensive historical landmark hotel frequented by those who can afford it. The preserve is technically a land trust but actually a corporation, overseen by a board of directors and headed by executive director Glenn D. Hoagland. Since the preserve is a private enterprise, it is necessary to purchase a day pass or an annual membership permit to use these lands.

Your writer is a preserve member, and therefore has had ample opportunity to use preserve lands and closely observe the flora and fauna that are found there. Deer are among the animals that live on the preserve. Not surprisingly, each autumn, deer are legal game. They are hunted with shotguns on weekdays during three weeks from mid-November through early December. C.A.S.H. has periodically protested deer hunting on the preserve but to no avail. (Hunting is not permitted on woodlands owned by Mohonk Mountain House.) [Editor’s note: Although the Mohonk House says they do not allow hunting, the Mohonk House applies for and receives “nuisance” permits to kill deer on property that belongs to the House. They charge hunters to hunt on their preserve lands which attract non-consumptive enjoyers of the outdoors.]

One important reason that deer are hunted on the preserve is that there is a very close relationship between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (including members of the New York State Division of Wildlife and Sportsman Education) and most members of the preserve’s eighteen person board. Indeed, the southwestern portion of the preserve borders Minnewaska State Park where deer hunting is also permitted. By the board’s own admission there is an annual average of only about one deer per ten acres on Mohonk preserve. Your writer has had four and a half months this year to closely study Nature on the preserve and it is his estimation, based on sightings, deer tracks, other deer signs, and the unmistakable sound of retreating deer, that the deer population density on the preserve, even after fawns were born early this summer, has actually been about one deer for every twenty or twenty-five acres. Your writer has observed only about a dozen deer on preserve woodlands these four and a half months. His hikes in various portions of the preserve have averaged four to six hours a day, two to three times a week. There have been other deer sighted in open fields. Presumably most of these deer enter woods by the time frosts have killed most plants and a majority of the leaves have fallen, reducing available overage prior to gun hunting season. This may increase deer population density on the preserve by no more than one deer for every five to ten acres.

The foregoing information is essential if one is to understand the curious aspect of a small portion of the Spring Farm section of the Mohonk Preserve. If a hiker walks from the parking lot, up the Spring Farm Road through a field bordered by woods, and thence into woods along the wide Spring Farm hiking trail, and then onto Cedar Drive Trail; approximately seven-tenths of a mile along this trail the observant hiker, looking to his or her right may see a fenced enclosure about a hundred feet into the woods. The fence is about seven feet high, too high for a deer to lean over. A sign on the fence says: “DEER EXCLUSION ENCLOSURE…”

Theoretically this fenced area was designed by preserve research personnel to monitor the results of deer foraging. Presumably, the enclosure area would be compared to surrounding woods to determine whether deer were heavily browsing undergrowth. Most of the interior o the enclosure consists of belt to chest-high saplings. One might conclude that these are a result of the absence of deer in the enclosed area. Outside the enclosure the ground is barren of undergrowth except for this year’s seedlings (mostly red maple).

However, only the ground in the vicinity of the enclosure is barren of low-growth deer browse. If one observes the ground surface about seventy feet behind the enclosure he or she will find an area about fifteen by thirty feet brimming with high saplings like those found within the enclosure. Likewise, about 150 feet in front of the enclosure, one will find an even larger area of chest-high saplings created by gaps in the overhead leaf canopy. So what is one to conclude? In view of the low deer population density here: 1) there may be phantom deer chewing the low-growth browse that may have previously existed around the enclosure, or 2) the enclosure may have deliberately been placed around a small area of high saplings in a larger area devoid of such saplings, or 3) there may be even more suspicious activities. It’s an excellent scenario for a conspiracy theorist. But it isn’t difficult to become a conspiracy theorist when one is familiar with the ins and outs of commercial wildlife management and “wildlife research.”

Those interested in official explanations may, as the sign indicated, contact the Daniel Smiley Research Center at 845-255-5969.

However, be forewarned that what you may be told, like what you may see in the woods around the deer exclusion enclosure, may not be what it seems.

Interior of research plot

Outside of plot from interior of fence

Immediately outside of research plot

Sixty to seventy feet behind the plot. Some small saplings have winter-killed tips. They were not eaten by deer or other animals.

About 150 feet in front of the plot. The saplings look like the interior of the plot.

Ron Baker is the author of The American Hunting Myth.

Ron was a founder and editor of the Backwoods Journal for 17 years, and homesteaded in the Adirondacks for 27 years in both his cabin, which was built of indigenous materials, and in tents until the weather no longer permitted it.

C.A.S.H. is honored that Ron has allowed us to “reprint” his entire book on CD and make it available to the growing number of people who rely on this factual and heavily footnoted book for information about hunting and wildlife management.

Please see our new addition to the Catalog.



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